Prayuth Chan-ocha

Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha didn't take kindly to right-wing newspaper's comments. Pic: AP.

This past weekend, around 40-50 military officers gathered in front of the building of ASTV-Manager protesting the newspaper’s harsh criticism of the army and the ‘slandering’ of their armed forces chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha. The soldiers from the 1st army region assembled on Friday afternoon after the newspaper compared Prayuth’s most recent outburst to a “woman in her periods”. A second protest was staged on Saturday morning at the same spot and they threatened to repeat it again every day until the paper apologizes.

The show of force by the officers in green came after a public tit-for-tat between General Prayuth and the newspaper, the latter attacking the armed forces for their handling of the border conflict with neighboring Cambodia over the ancient Hindu temple Preah Vihear. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) will hold hearings in April, after the Cambodia has requested the ICJ to reinterpret aspects of the 1962 ruling in their favor. A decision is expected to take place in October this year.

Just to be very clear, the publication the soldiers were protesting is far from being the beacon of the Thai press: ASTV-Manager is the press outlet of the ultra-nationalistic and ill-named “People’s Alliance for Democracy” (PAD), also commonly known as the yellow shirts. Apart from their regular anti-democratic diatribes and low punches as seen above (that reflects its comments section), the Preah Vihear temple conflict is one of the issues the political pressure group is using to rally up supporters – just that it’s one of the less popular ones compared to those that have a distinct anti-Thaksin and nowadays anti-Yingluck agenda to it.

The last PAD protest over the temple conflict was in early 2011, following another deadly clash at the border between Thai and Cambodian troops. At the short-lived and small protest sit-in, the yellow shirts were at times calling for an open war with Cambodia. Frustrated with their diminished relevance in Thai (street) politics – it was also during that time when they broke off their formerly close alliances with the Democrat Party (which were in power back then) and with hawkish factions of the military – the PAD accused both of not doing enough for the “interest of the country” over the border conflict.

In the run-up to the ICJ hearings – during which the PAD has urged the government not to accept anything at all by the ICJ in the irrational fear of losing sovereignty – the PAD’s news-outlets are repeating their diatribes against Cambodia, the ICJ and also the army as they started criticizing General Prayuth, which deteriorated into the spat and ultimately to the soldiers’ protest, who see not only their army chief being attacked but also the institution of the armed forces as a whole:

The green-uniformed protesters on Saturday said the article has damaged their morale because the army chief is like their “second father”. They demanded the media outlet issue an apology to the general.

They also denied being ordered by their superiors to stage the event. Gen Prayuth told reporters earlier that the soldiers were free to hold such rallies because they were trying to protect the armed forces, not just him. (…)

“If [the PAD] were the government, I would have to listen to it. But since it is not, I have no idea what to do with it,” Gen Prayuth said during a visit to the border area earlier in the week.

Prayuth to troops: Stand down at ASTV“, Bangkok Post, January 12, 2013

Despite the fact that Prayuth has ordered the soldiers to cease from any more protests, the public display by the soldiers underlines the over-confident self-perception of the armed forces’ role in Thai society that they are above from criticism – given Prayuth’s erratic outbursts at the media (read here, here and here) that is hardly surprising. While this is mouthpiece of an ultra-nationalistic pressure group we’re talking about, having 50 troops show up at their doorstep isn’t right either! And to make matters worse, the army is now asking for “confidence in the army”  (read forgiveness) – quite an ambitious request after this weekend.

Generally, the reactions by Thai journalists on this incident were swift and clear:

The TJA statement called for the army to respect freedom of the press. If the army feels the media have violated its rights, it can file a complaint with the National Press Council. As well, it said the army chief should listen to media coverage that fairly reflected the army’s and his performance without bias and in a constructive way.

At the same time, it said, all media (…) should refrain from distorting the facts or abusing the dignity and human rights of people appearing in the news. They should also refrain from using rude or insulting words, it said.

Journalists decry threats“, Bangkok Post, January 12, 2013

While this response is in principle correct, it begs the question where the TJA was during other (arguably equally severe) interferences and threats to the media and freedom of speech in the past few years? Where was the TJA on the countless lèse majesté cases affecting free speech and charges made against journalists? Where were they when on the verdict of Prachatai webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn, held liable for online comments she didn’t make? Did they say anything about the media interferences by the Abhisit administration? Was there any criticism made over the apparent failure by Thai TV to inform about a potential tsunami warning? And what did the TJA say when (of all people) journalism students were protesting against reforms of the lèse majesté law?

UPDATE: As soon as this post was published on Monday afternoon, news came out that army chief Prayuth has “apologized”. However, he only apologized for his choices of words (“a lousy newspaper”), but not the message itself.

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About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent based in Bangkok, Thailand. He writes about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and is also reports for international news media such as Channel NewsAsia. You can follow him on Twitter @Saksith.